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Posted at 11:50 AM ET, 04/ 2/2010

Why Obama's education reform plan can't work

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Jim Horn, who teaches at Cambridge College in Cambridge, Mass., and is a contributor to the Schools Matter blogpost. Here he writes an open letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan about Duncan's and President Obama's proposal to rewrite No Child Left Behind.

Dear Secretary Duncan:
I am writing to express my two chief concerns regarding policy development and implementation around the ideas presented in the Blueprint for revising No Child Left Behind.

The first has to do with the implications of using student test score gains in teacher evaluations. I need not remind you of the forewarning already provided to you in a letter by the National Academies Panel last fall regarding the premature use of untested growth models to design teacher reward or punishment systems. The development of such systems at the state level, which the Race to the Top point system encourages, would show a thorough disregard for the best scientific opinion.

There is a deeper concern related to using test scores to make high stakes decisions about teachers, however, and it has to do with the sacredness of the age-old bond that is established between children and their teachers.

Despite all the politicizing of the teaching profession, at heart teachers remain child advocates and cultivators of the next generation of citizens. Teachers want children to succeed and flourish, but it is not because they have been paid to do so. A student’s growth and well-being remain the teacher’s most ardent concerns, despite the fact that she is undervalued, demonized, ridiculed, mistrusted, and paid less than most other professions that require the same level of education and training.

If a child’s test scores are to be used to make decisions regarding a teacher’s most basic needs for adequate sustenance for her family and for a dollop of dignity from her principal, then you risk damaging the teacher-student relationship that goes as far back as Socrates.

And this says nothing about the threat that pay based on test score plans bring to present and potential collaboration among teachers who must begin to worry, then, about whether her students are pulling ahead of the students next door or the students in the school down the street.

Teachers will work no harder when their tenure or their salary depends upon their students’ test scores, but the kind of work they do, if such plans are adopted, will not resemble the work of the attentive gardener tending these tender tendrils of humanity that constitute our future.

My other primary concern is related to what appears to be a missed opportunity to make civil rights once again a priority of the Education Department.

Recently you announced more resources going to bring court challenges against schools that have breached the current Civil Rights laws and regulations.

That is a positive step, but can you imagine what an impact the Department could have if equity, civil rights, and social justice planning were part of the criteria for awarding the $4.35 billion in grants to the States. So far no points (0.00) are offered in Race to the Top to incentivize potential grantees toward novel or innovative solutions to the accelerating re-segregation of American schools.

Unfortunately, the “innovative” choice option that is being advocated in the Blueprint heavily favors charter schools, with the “No Excuses” KIPP Schools as the model to emulate.

Now it doesn’t take Margaret Spellings to see that the KIPP schools that your Department is holding up as models are intensely segregated by race and class, and there is nothing, unfortunately, that KIPP or your Department can do to attract white or middle class students to them.

Why? Because those parents in the leafy suburbs or in the townhouses of the D. C. would never allow their children to be treated like the economically disadvantaged, black and brown children who are being KIPP-notized daily in the KIPPs and the KIPP wannabes, all with the Department’s blessings.

There are other school choice options such as magnet schools that provide more robust and public forms of choice, and magnet schools have years of documented success and plenty of research to justify their proliferation.

By ignoring the documented successes of magnet schools in increasing parental involvement in public schools, integrating and energizing school communities, narrowing learning gaps, and offering many varied choices to parents in terms of curricula and instructional models, the current Blueprint limits urban parents’ choices to either a neglected and largely segregated public school or an intensely segregated charter school with a harsh behavioral and compliance regime that most parents would not allow for their children if they could truly choose something more humane and effective.

Even though the public schools of Wake County, N.C., have been recently hijacked by anti-diversity conservatives who are in the process of blowing up the best example yet of magnet schools and limited two-way busing to effectively achieve true socioeconomic school integration, the Wake County results stand on their own, as Gerald Grant documents in his recent book, "Hope and Despair in the American City" (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Your friend, Bill Gates, has recently made it his personal mission to make sure the world reads "Work Hard, Be Nice," Jay Mathews’s celebratory story of KIPP founders, Mike Feinberg and David Levin.

I would challenge you to use some of the department’s professional development fund to make sure that Mr. Gates and all of his former employees who now work for your department get a copy of Gerald Grant’s important book. Here is the way he concludes it:

. . . this tale of two American cities [Syracuse and Raleigh] is not just about test scores. It’s about the kind of nation we hope to become. We should not want, nor shall we ever achieve, a nation of equal test scores or equal incomes. But we need to decide whether we want schools segregated by race and class, or schools that provide equal opportunity for all children—schools where students are enriched by relationships and ways of thinking that help them break out of the boxes of race and class that our flawed history has constructed. Do we believe in a nation that welcomes all comers, provides a level playing field in all its public schools, relishes the clash of ideas, and, as a consequence, enjoys one of the highest rates of upward mobility in the world? Raleigh’s reinvention of the ideals of the American common school made it an exemplar of those dreams and hopes (p. 191).


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 2, 2010; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  | Tags:  Arne Duncan, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  
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America's thoroughly segregated public schools are admittedly failing the children of working people. The schools are woven into the fabric of a failing economy rife with racism where inner-city school teachers are accountable but bankers destroy with impunity. The business model for the schools perverts them into General Motors and Enron-like entities. Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, and their ilk have clearly failed already. But then they were never trying to reform the schools anyway. They wanted to destroy them and they can't allow systems like Wake County to exist much less spread.

Only teacher controlled public schools would make any difference. The reason is the vast majority of teachers care for their students, the children they teach. Not all, but most. Once they were in charge bad teachers would be gone the next day. Teachers know who the unfit among them are. Their lips would just have to be pried from administrators backsides with a crowbar so they could be on their way. The worst teachers love standardized testing and mindless data collection, they crave to be told what to do minute-by-minute in the classroom. The worst teachers quickly seek refuge in administration. The very worst become Chancellors or US Secretaries of Education.

And their concern for the children would cause teachers to guide them away from becoming cannon fodder in wars for oil in Iraq or Afghanistan. And their concern for these children would compel teachers to guide them away from competition with Chinese children and Indian children and other children of the world to see who could work for less in sweatshops and farm fields. And teachers would not lie to them about success and a wonderful job in a failed global economy if they will just score well on some meaningless test. Teachers in control would be free not to lie to their students, like they are lied to everyday now!

Posted by: natturner | April 2, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I challenge our commander in chief and other decision makers to use tools that Generals use to support their actions and decisions. Primary among them are maps.

Visit and you'll find maps of Chicago showing where poverty is most concentrated, and where poorly performing schools are located.

If leaders in business, religion, government and media use these maps to distribute needed resources, such as mentor-rich learning and enrichment programs, to schools and non-school organizations around low performing schools, then they can begin the first steps of creating social justice, by working toward a better distribution of resources.

Maps can be used as tools for accountability, too. For instance, anyone who gets a government contract, or bail-out, could be asked to put flags on the map showing which of their locations provide volunteers, technology, operating dollars, and/or jobs to youth in the neighborhood where they operate.

Elected leaders could put pins on the map showing places where they have helped distribute needed resources, or where they have influenced the actions of business, faith groups and colleges to distribute these resources.

If such maps are available to the public, then voters and shoppers could decide which leaders are doing a better job of making equitable resources available.

While it might take a great deal of motivation and inspiration for existing leaders to create map-based directories that are used this way, these can be created by local organizations and citizen collaborations without waiting for the leaders. In fact, teachers, using service learning dollars, could teach their own students to build systems like this, thus empowering them to have a greater influence on what adults do to help them in their own journey through life.

Posted by: tutormentor1 | April 2, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Jim Horn has been closely following the evolution of ed re-(or rather de-)form for years, and has been documenting the misguided and corrupt events, and attempts. Follow his blog.

I know progress is being made if he has been able to present his knowledge on a national platform such as WaPo.

Thank you, Ms. Strauss.

Posted by: pondoora | April 2, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

I do think it is true that most teacher do care for the kids they are teaching, but that does not make them effective teachers. One of the mistakes a lot of people make is the presumption that these are the same thing. Horn writes to critically of KIPP but he is either clueless or blinded by ideology to think those kids had better options in the public schools they came from. The reality about the KIPP schools is that they target poor areas, they are not located in neighborhoods that most of us feel safe in, this is the honest reality and would apply even to magnets. See the history of reform in Kansas City. I want to see an model of success in poor urban areas produced by all these anti-reform advocates, they can't produce one, they only know how to criticize.

Posted by: Brooklander | April 2, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

This is a great article - too bad Arne Duncan won't listen to it.

And neither will Bill Gates. He's doing the same damage to education that he did to the computer field. If it wasn't for Gates squashing the competition constantly in the computer field would have progressed faster. He really held the computer field back, and now he is holding education back.

Posted by: jlp19 | April 2, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse


About 60% of the kids who enter KIPP drop out within a couple of years. I'm guessing those are the ones who are not meeting the requirements or who have behavioral issues.

This means only the most dedicated kids are left in KIPP. The problem is, the public schools have to educate the kids who leave KIPP.

So KIPP gets the most motivated kids, and the public schools the least motivated kids.

One more thing about Gates - he was a real terror in the computer field. People were really scared to cross him. He was one of those "My way or the highway" people.

Posted by: jlp19 | April 2, 2010 10:36 PM | Report abuse

The teacher is often blamed for the unsuccessful student when the fault may actually be due to the parent or student.

The educational system has limited ability to hold parents and students accountable, so it appears our system has chosen to assign blame to the only person they have authority to blame, the teacher.

Such a blind system is unfair to the teacher, ignores poor parenting and betrays the student who the system exists for in the first place.

So, what are the consequences to the child if the teacher is held totally responsible for the success and failure of the student?

From my own experience I believe this type of system is asking for teachers to teach to the test in order to hold onto their job.


Posted by: conservativeteacher | April 3, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I'm a K-2nd grade Autistic Support teacher in Philadelphia. I love my job and have contributed quite a bit in terms of personal time and money in order to develop appropriate materials and activities for my students. That makes me fairly similar to many special ed teachers. One of my core criticisms of RTTT is the linking teacher eval/pay with test scores. What about those students who are severely disabled?

This year, PA will be including the results of the PASA (PA state alternative assessment) in the AYP results. This is nothing but sheer idiocy. Students who qualify for the PASA are among the most disabled students.

I have one student who, at 7 1/2 yrs old, is still in diapers and has NO WORDS at all. This student's speech development is comparable to that of a 7 MONTH OLD BABY. This student is in the first grade but was actually allowed to stay in Early Intervention an additional year before entering school. If not for this, she would be entering 3rd grade next year and definitely taking the PASA. This student would be scored, justifiably, at the very lowest level of skill/knowledge attainment.

Question #1: Does anyone believe that this student's inability to gain academic knowledge and skills in any way reflective of the teaching?

Question #2: How does RTTT confer merit and pay on those of us who work diligently for children whose gains are very small and very different from most other students?

Question #3: Don't these children matter anymore?

Posted by: Nikki1231 | April 4, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse


The reality is that our current system of school funding ensures inequality of education. Students with the grestest resources attend schools that are well-funded, while poor students (such as the vast majority in Phila. where I teach) are relegated to schools that have a weak funding base.

In PA, per pupil student funding is grossly unequal. Nowhere is this more starkly seen than in Philly and the surrounding suburbs. Lower Merion has a per pupil expenditure that is almost DOUBLE that of the Philadelphia school district. Bear in mind that Philadelphia has a far, far greater share of children who are ELL's, homeless, transient, subjected to neglect and abuse. In other words, our poor students need more than those in Lower Merion but end up getting far less. Is it any wonder that poor schools struggle to meet children's needs?

As for KIPP, there are 2 important points to make: First, KIPP schools use private funding in addition to public funds. Simply put, they cost more than to operate than traditional public schools in their districts. This is not a criticism, it is a consideration that must factor into any discussion of expansion of the program.

Secondly, KIPP holds several policies that would be considered onderous to many families and students in regular public schools. For example, students entering KIP academies take tests that determine their grade level. In short, children do not enter grade levels based on school attendance history but based on achievement. There is a logic to this that I cannot dispute. If you can't do 6th grade work, what precisely makes you a 6th grader? That said, would you embrace a local school that basically forced your child to repeat a grade? You might, but many parents would not.

Another policy issue is that of longer school day and Saturday school/summer school attendance. As a parent, I relish my son's weekend sports activities and our family trips. I may be a middle class teacher but I know many poor parents who feel the same way about their family time.

These are just a few considerations to keep in mind when discussing school reform. Overall, I support school choice and applaud KIPP for providing a good option for many poor families. I would caution, however, that there is no one-size fits all aproach that will absolutely work for everyone. Schools, more than almost any other institutions, are a reflection of the will of their local communities. Without substantial support from families, no school program will be successful.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | April 4, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

In order for any school district and educational plan to succeed, you must have parental involvement. As a high school special ed teacher in an inner city school, I have a difficult time getting a parent to come to their child's IEP (Individualized Educational Plan). At our last parent teacher conference, in a school that has over 1100 students, we had 25 parents show up. Yet it is still the teacher who is held accountable for whether or not a student succeeds or fails in school.

Shouldn't the parents be held more accountable for their children than the teacher's are?

I also have to agree with Nikki1234, standardized tests don't work for most of our special needs students. To gear a teachers raise (or even the ability to keep his or her job) based on how well their students do on a test, is purely wrong. Our students make baby steps, not giant leaps. As teachers, we can challenge them to do more, but some simply don't have the ability. NCLB has been a failure for our special needs students as well as our general ed students. Instead of having legislatures tell us what we have to do, why not have educators show them some of the best practices that work for our kids. We are the ones in the trenches. Instead of penalizing us, fund the programs we need to have all of our students succeed. Charter schools are not the "end all" answer. There are some extremely talented and dedicated teachers in the public schools too, trying to teach to students who's parents don't care about how they do in school, but will be the first ones there to retrieve a cell phone that their child had out during class.

Posted by: jphteacher | April 4, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

I think Nikki spoke more truth then maybe she was fully attending too. The truth is no school works for everyone, but this is what we have been trying to do since the beginning of public education in America.

Now admittedly I grew up in a small city called Cedar Rapids (about 250,000 I believe, more if you count the surrounding area). Our "magnet schools" would of course provide a few extra resources with their magnet, but very little went into this, and it was largely established around the teachers, so they didn't really go along with it. This had the effect of making the magnet just like all the other schools in the city.

For a highly gifted (and seriously disabled at times) asperger's kid like me... that makes school SO frustrating. The average school is not made for aspie kids by a long shot. Problems with bullying leading to health problems and suicidal tendencies. For many putting education in a subject on pause for a few years (I learned hardly anything in math in both elementary school and middle school). It wasn't much fun...

So we need alternative options outside just the typical magnet school. Using charters, using vouchers, using whatever, we need them now. We can not afford to wait!

Posted by: endersdragon | April 7, 2010 3:16 AM | Report abuse

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